Sodium: Reference and Dietary Sources


In this article, we describe:

  • the major purposes of this specific nutrient in the human body, 
  • its experimentally confirmed health uses, 
  • conventional ways to estimate nutrient status,
  • nutrient’s toxicities and deficiencies,
  • experimentally confirmed and approved levels of the nutrient intake for different demographics,
  • dietary sources of the nutrient.


Sodium is the primary positive ion found in the blood and body fluids. It is also found in every cell, although it is mainly extracellular, working closely with potassium, the primary intracellular mineral. Sodium is one of the electrolytes, along with potassium and chloride, and is closely tied in with the movement of water. Approximately 90 to 100 grams are present in the body, most of which occurs in combination with chloride as salt, or sodium chloride.

Along with potassium, sodium helps to regulate the fluid balance of the body, both within and outside the cells. Sodium also is very important to muscle contraction and hydrochloric acid production in the stomach, and is used during the transport of amino acids from the gut into the blood.

Nearly 100% of the sodium consumed gets into the blood and is circulated through the kidneys, which can reabsorb or eliminate it in order to maintain stable blood sodium levels. About 90% of the sodium consumed in the average diet is in excess of body needs and must be eliminated in the urine. Therefore, urine levels reflect dietary intake.

More problems are caused by excess sodium—high blood pressure, premenstrual symptoms, and water retention, for example—than there are low-sodium difficulties that require treatment with sodium. High blood pressure is now epidemic in the developed countries that eat high-salt diets. Where natural foods are the only source of sodium, there is almost no hypertension. These foods contain more potassium, which is found in high amounts in plant cells as well as in human cells. There is still some controversy about the relationship between salt and high blood pressure; the sodium-to-potassium ratio may be even more important in controlling blood pressure than the actual amount of sodium. Certain people seem to be more sensitive to sodium and its effects on blood pressure, although it is not clear whether this is due to genetic or other physiologic factors. Restricting sodium may significantly help the estimated 15% to 25% of the general population that is salt sensitive. Nevertheless, it has been observed that a higher potassium intake may offset some of the negative effects sodium has on blood pressure.

Low sodium levels can, however, result from habitually avoiding sodium or from hot weather and severe perspiration; extra salt or sodium can help here. Preventing and treating heatstroke and leg cramps are occasional uses for sodium. It is possible that on one hand, low sodium levels can cause blurred vision, edema, and even high blood pressure or, on the other, decreased fluid volume and low blood pressure. In these situations, additional sodium may be helpful. So there is more of a concern with toxicity from excesses than with deficiencies.

To understand if the level of sodium in blood is too high or too low, a sodium blood test can be ordered.

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Nutri-IQis a unique tool that helps Wellness Professionals to easy and conveniently identify clients’ nutritional gaps as possible causes for clients’ complaints.

Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for Sodium 

As per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, nearly 77% of the sodium intake of an average American comes from consuming packaged and restaurant foods. The American Food and Nutrition Board recommends a daily intake of 1.5 grams of sodium for an adult, with an upper limit of 2.3 grams. The recommended values hold for lactating mothers and pregnant women too. We get most of our sodium through salt (either table salt or sea salt) and food additives that are used during the process of food preparation.

Despite the above, it is always recommended to take the advice of a suitable healthcare professional before bringing any alteration to regular food habits such as a low sodium diet.

There is no RDA established for sodium intake.

Dietary Sources of Sodium

Many common food additives, such as baking soda, sodium nitrite (preservative), and monosodium glutamate (used to enhance flavor), contain sodium. Many processed foods and snacks contain a high quantity of such additives, thus implying that they are high-sodium foods. Such processed foods include white bread, salted nuts, chips, sauces, canned food items, butter, margarine, salted meat and fish, pickles, burgers, pizzas, rolls, sandwiches, cheese, tomato ketchup, sauce, bacon, and ham. To avoid negative consequences, it is recommended to avoid high-salt foods, such as:

  • Salt from the shaker, in cooking or at the table
  • All smoked or salted meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, bologna, and sausage
  • Food from Chinese restaurants with salt, soy sauce, and MSG
  • Brine-soaked foods, such as pickles, olives, and sauerkraut
  • Canned and instant soups unless salt free (watch out for MSG, too)
  • Salted and smoked fish and caviar
  • Processed cheeses
  • Commercially prepared condiments, such as ketchup, barbecue sauce, mayonnaise, salad dressings, mustard, and steak sauce
  • Most ready-made gravies and sauces
  • Snack foods, such as chips, salted peanuts and popcorn, pretzels, and the majority of crackers on the market
  • Any foods with added soda or sodium salts, such as sodium phosphate

The following is a list of foods high in sodium: 

  • Olives in brine solution
  • Many processed foods and snacks contain a high sodium levels, thus implying that the chloride levels are also high. These include salted nuts, chips, sauces, canned food items, butter, salted meat and fish, pickles, burgers, sandwiches, cheese, tomato ketchup, bacon and ham.
  • Many common food additives, such as baking soda, sodium nitrite (preservative), and monosodium glutamate (used to enhance flavor), contain sodium.
  • Milk and cheese
  • Cocoa powder, drinking chocolate, and caramel
  • Cornflakes and breakfast cereals
  • Puffed rice
  • Eggs
  • Oysters and boiled prawns
  • Fast foods, canned and baked food items, processed foods, sauces, garnishes, and spreads are all high sodium foods that are harmful to one’s health.


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